“How do you eat an elephant?” goes the old riddle. “One bite at a time.”
I have chosen to eat an elephant. No one is force feeding me this particular pachyderm. This is neither a class nor freelance assignment, nor is it research for some overly ambitious project that I’ll never finish. Mine is a voluntary elephant, a leisure elephant.
Admittedly, this particular chore was suggested by a friend, but I’m the sucker who chose to run with it. “I should read one biography of each U.S. president,” she said. “And not just any book. Each should be a credible work.”
“What a great idea. I think I’ll do that, too,” I said, and a big ass elephant tipped my car over Flintstones-style.
My first bite was selecting my reading list. How does one pick one each from the inordinate number of biographies of American presidents? Fortunately, my friend was not the first person to hatch such a scheme. A blogger named Stephen Floyd claims a collection of 240 presidential biographies, from which he has ranked his picks and even highlighted the Pulitzer winners. I picked from his picks, and then went on the hunt both locally and online for cheap (under five bucks) copies. The first three presidents were enough to get me going–really Washington would have been enough–but I checked off as many as I could. The rest will find their way to my local used bookstore eventually.
Next bite: Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life flew past, all 850 pages of it. Sure, we get the dates, names, and places that rendered high school history unbearably boring, but Chernow sprinkles in the kind of trivia that’s fun to cite. Did you know that on the day that he was inaugurated Washington only had one tooth left, or that he purchased a handful of teeth from some poor sucker for a failed implant attempt? How about the fact that he was essentially raised by a single mother who later repeatedly and publicly undermined her famous son?
Washington was our first celebrity, a real life action hero: tall, muscular, a general who rode directly into the heart of battle and a president borderline obsessed with setting standards for the office that future presidents could follow. Unlike many of the other founding fathers he lacked a formal education, a fact that made this vain, proud man both uncomfortable and very methodical in his decision making. Apparently his voice was relatively high, too. Fun stuff.
And now I’m onto the next bite: John Ferling’s John Adams: A Life. Poor John Adams. How can a fat little attorney with self esteem issues expect to follow the exploits of a superhero? Reading about our second president’s bureaucratic victories, familial neglect, and chronic illness is only slightly less painful than 18th century dentistry.
It’s not all bad news, though. What keeps things interesting is seeing the same historical events unfold from a different perspective. It’s a bit like Pulp Fiction–parallel stories all coming together in the last reel. While Washington was bashing it out on the ground, musket balls flying and horses literally getting shot out from under him, Adams was in Europe with Franklin and Jefferson (among others), negotiating peace.
He had his young son, John Quincy, with him during those years, and while the kid lived at boarding school during the week he spent his weekends with dad. A few more bites of the elephant and I’ll be reading about those Paris years from the son’s perspective, but first I have to plow through Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
And this, I realize now, is the brilliance of my buddy’s proposal. By reading presidential biographies in chronological order, I’n not just eating an elephant for the sake of eating an elephant. I’m not even reading about presidents, really, at least not exclusively. The whole exercise is simply a footpath through one large story–the American story–told from several different perspectives.
I’ve had to recalibrate my internal calendar a bit to really get my brain around that idea. When I think of presidents I think of presidential terms, 4-8 year segments of time (Garfield, Kennedy, and Roosevelt notwithstanding), and while that holds true for the stories of presidencies it’s not a reasonable measure for stories of presidents. Our first five presidents, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, were contemporaries. Reading their stories should provide not just five different perspectives on historical events, but five unique but overlapping views of American life from the early 18th through the early 19th centuries. On and on, those overlapping lives spanning the years 1732 to 2019-20, or whenever I’ve eaten the last bite of elephant.
I make a similar math error when I think about human history. I tend to think in terms of 20 year generations, which is a useful unit of measure for many things but an artificial one nonetheless. When one generation reaches maturity, those preceding them don’t magically vanish. These days we live to 80 on average, so if you stack us up 20 years at a time five generations are bouncing around the planet. Tack on the handful of outliers who make it to 100 and we’re six generations above ground at any given moment.
Measured in 20 year increments, we need to go back 12 generations to revisit the time when Washington was battling redcoats and Adams was battling writer’s cramp, but if we use the modern life span as our yardstick we only have to stack up three lifetimes to get to the Revolutionary War. That’s a remarkably short period of time in the grand scheme of things. In order to return to the emergence of homo sapiens, we have to place 3,750 80 year-olds end to end. To reach the birth of our planet requires 56,787,500 lifetimes stacked head to toe.
So I guess as eating elephants goes, I’ve picked a pretty small one. Thanks to Grover Cleveland serving two non-consecutive terms, I only have 44 books to read, at least as of today’s date, and one of those is likely a coloring book. Those 44 biographies will cover nearly 300 years, which isn’t even a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things–44 overlapping stories starting with the curious case of a wealthy real estate mogul who felt oppressed and ending, probably, with a wealthy real estate mogul who feels oppressed. And through it all runs a crimson thread of bloodied soldiers, slaves, and native people; merchants, craftsmen, and farmers just trying to get by; and women and children neglected by vainglorious spouses seeking their places in history.
It’s an elephant I look forward to eating, but I hope most bites taste better than John Adams.